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Video killed the television star
Paul Schrader
Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello
The Setup: 
Bio of Bob Crane of Hogan’s Heroes and how he spirals downward into video-fueled sex addiction.

I was vaguely interested in this while it was at the theater, but put off by the fact that it’s by Paul Schrader. I had heard that it was somewhat grueling, especially in the last half, and I had already had my share of grueling material from Schrader after the nightmare of Affliction and my horrid memories of sitting through Light Sleeper. On the other hand, there is the lurid fun of his Cat People remake… and a lot of friends told me how much they liked this movie.

We begin with credits that set the tone of “loose 60s lounge scene” with the attendant “2000s ironic distance.” Still, that can be fun. We join Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane in 1964 L.A., where he has a radio show. He is offered a part on a TV show, which he initially considers to be beneath him, but accepts based on the strength of the script. This is Hogan’s Heroes. Also in the cast is Richard Dawson, who later became best-known as the host of Family Feud. The show is an immediate success, and Crane enjoys his fame. In here somewhere his wife finds a bunch of porn mags in the garage [“they're photography magazines” Crane tries and fails with her]. He promises to get rid of them.

In here Crane meets John Carpenter [no, not the director of Halloween], a sound guy who’s installed the newest thing—what would become the VCR—in Dawson’s trailer. He shows it to Crane, and he wants one, too. Carpenter invites Crane to a strip club, where Crane ends up on stage, playing drums. At this point Crane doesn’t drink. He begins going to the strip club almost every night, and his wife begins to be upset that he’s never at home. Crane gets a video camera and VCR [a reel-to-reel thing at the time] for his home.

It isn’t long before Crane is persuaded to have an orgy with Carpenter and two other women. It is the first of many, and they both get excited by videotaping the proceedings and watching it later. During one of the playbacks, Crane notices that Carpenter’s hand is groping his ass, and he makes a huge deal out of insisting that he not do that. He also makes it quite clear that he considers his fame the reason women are willing to also take interest in Carpenter, and Carpenter had better just keep that in mind. He also instructs Carpenter to drop Lawson as a friend, which he does.

Crane starts to develop scrapbooks filled with polaroids of the women he has slept with. Among these is the always-welcome Maria Bello as the replacement for the blond woman on the show [Helga?], who says she doesn’t mind that Crane sleeps around. Crane’s wife finds the books of polaroids in the garage and leaves him, taking the kids. He marries Bello. This continues relatively fine, then Hogan’s Heroes comes to an end, and Crane has to find a new job.

This is where things start sliding downhill, much or all of it due to Crane himself. It seems that he shows people his photo albums indiscriminately, and when anyone thinks it odd, he tells them that sex is normal and natural. There is also a photo of him in the papers showing him playing drums at a strip club—it’s a sign of how things have changed since that he was able to play there for years WITHOUT a photo appearing. This endangers a movie he had lined up with Disney, which they end up just dumping out to horrible reviews. Crane is forced to do dinner theater. He has a penis enlargement operation. His marriage to Bello starts to come apart as he spends more and more time away and loses interest in her. He edits together a tape implying that Carpenter is gay, and Carpenter doesn’t appreciate it one bit.

Toward the end, after losing his second wife, unable to get a decent job and estranged from his kids, Crane attempts to clean up his act and dumps Carpenter. The camera suddenly goes all shaky and handheld. Carpenter is very hurt, and it becomes explicitly apparent that he is in love with Crane. He sneaks into Crane’s house one night and bludgeons him to death with a tripod. The last line of the movie is “Men gotta have fun.”

It was all very well-done. It was admirably low-key, leaving it to the viewer to notice little details like Crane’s hair being dyed, him getting fatter, etc. One nice touch is the way Schrader repeats the same line of dialogue from different performances of Crane’s dinner theater play, letting us observe over time how the environments are getting cheesier and Crane’s delivery growing more and more obvious. This very restrained approach helps to involve the viewer, as you have to observe all these things for yourself, and makes you appreciate the restraint, as you aren’t having music, directorial cues or heavy-handed lines in the script telling you exactly what to think. I also liked the exploration of the men’s rather furtive sexuality. When Hugh Grant was caught getting a blow-job from a whore in a parked car and everyone asked “Why would he do that when he’s married to the beautiful Elizabeth Hurley?” I always thought “Well, because you just can’t get [or don’t often get] the same thrill from being with someone you're married to that you do from getting a blow-job in a parked car from a whore.” This film successfully examines that area of some men’s sexuality, showing us how for Crane, having the photos and videos of the women is almost, or more, exciting than having the women themselves. It’s a kind of arrested development shared by many out there [hate to break it to you], and since Crane is famous and briefly powerful, there’s no reason for him to change. One of the more chilling shots in this vein is when a woman says she doesn’t like the camera recording their tryst, and Crane tells her it’s off when we can see that it is still on.

I also liked the handling of Carpenter’s homosexuality. The movie never comes out and says “he is gay” or “he is in love with Crane,” in part because neither statement is completely true. We see Carpenter enthusiastically have sex with several women, and the nature of his feeling for Crane falls somewhere between worship and need, but it is you the viewer who is left to decide whether or not this constitutes love. I really appreciated that it was all left so ambiguous.

Lastly, you gotta hand it to Greg Kinnear for going from Talk Soup host to serious actor and delivering really good, committed performances. Go Greg!

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it's pretty good, has great performances, and leaves you with a fair amount to think about. And it's not really dreary and harrowing until the very end.